Locarno Interview: Otar Iosseliani
While the France-based Georgian director Otar Iosseliani has somewhat passed out of fashion in the Euro fest circuit, he’s never even had his moment with North American audiences. His Adieu, plancher des vaches! won the Prix Louis Delluc in 1999; under the title Farewell, Home Sweet Home, it’s one of a handful of Iosseliani films available on home video with English subtitles. Now Chant d’hiver, the octogenarian’s first film since Chantrapas was an official selection in Cannes in 2010, premiered at Locarno in competition for the Golden Leopard. A supremely relaxed film made with a tender, steady touch, the movement of the characters nudging the frame this way and that, it never appeared to be anyone’s frontrunner to win anything, but one cannot imagine that this fact much disturbed Iosseliani who seems, in art as in life, inclined to take the long view.
Iosseliani was born in Tblisi, Georgia, in 1934, and he was trained in music at the Tblisi conservatory until 1953, after which he lit off for the University of Moscow to study math—both early vocations would crucially inform his future practice. He next proceeded to the VGIK film school which, during the smothering years in which Socialist Realism was the official aesthetic of the Soviet-influenced world, had become a hotbed of dissident thought. After achieving an international reputation with such films as Falling Leaves (67) and There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (71), Iosseliani emigrated to France in search of greater creative freedom, re-establishing himself after one of the periodic hiatuses which would characterize his career with 1984’s Favorites of the Moon (Les Favoris de la lune). Tending towards the use of a withdrawn, observational perspective and the patient development of minutely-calibrated non-gag gags, Iosseliani works in a mode which we might indulge in calling Tati-esque, if only to give the vaguest idea of how his films play. This shorthand, however, fails to account for Iosseliani’s occasional incursions into the realm of fairy tale logic—as in a moment in Chant d’hiver when a passage which appears magically in a grotty suburban wall opens onto an Arcadian grove—or his peculiar political perspective, a sort of bemused outrage.
Chant d’hiver (“Winter Song”) opens with two juxtaposed prologues—one set during the Post-Revolutionary Terror in Paris, another during what is presumably the 2008 Russo-Georgian War—then settles in to focus on the comings and goings of the various residents of a Parisian apartment building and their tertiary acquaintances, most prominently the concierge, Rufus, who carries on a sideline of trading bazookas for antiquarian books. The ensemble includes Enrico Ghezzi, playing a down-at-the-heels gentryman whose family keep is about to become property of the state, Mathieu Amalric as a tramp constructing his own shelter from stray rubble which he will decorate with his family’s promissory notes as a finishing touch, and the actor-director Pierre Etaix, a Jeff to Rufus’s Augustus Mutt. Add to this a band of roller-skating pickpockets, a police chief with the profile of Della Francesca’s Duke of Urbino, and a hobo being pancaked, Looney Tunes–style, by a steamroller that may as well be ACME brand, and you have a small sense of Iosseliani’s quiet-yet-bustling film, which has something like the perspective of the world observed from a park bench.
I met Iosseliani at the Ramada Hotel La Palma during the Locarno Film Festival, in his suite facing onto Lake Maggiore, bright blue and scintillating with sunshine—though he preferred to converse indoors, with the curtains drawn. I had been told that he was a very bibulous man given to extravagant discourses on history and literature, and neither of these things proved untrue, though I don’t mean it as a pejorative. Upon my arrival, he hastily buttoned his shirt over a Georgian cross pendant, freshly uncorked a bottle of red wine, and splashed a dash into the bottom of two glasses.
It’s a Georgian tradition to pour a little taste first, to make certain it’s not poisoned. This is a gift from the Russians so… It was the Sicilian mafia who sent a letter to someone along with some wine, saying “Don’t be afraid to drink it.”
Thank you. So, let’s start where Chant d’hiver starts, which is where all of your films start: with the war. Each time it’s the same, and each time it’s different.
War is always useless, it doesn’t change anything. War between neighbors, between political parties, between states, war to conquer territories—it has no use whatsoever. Starting from the First World War, filmmakers have been laughing at war, mocking it, starting with Charlie Chaplin. The only result of war is pillage. So what I had fun with was the image of soldiers taking away a water closet on their truck as loot, along with an old mattress and tents. Also the image of the army priest, who is clearly also part of the invading horde, who’s completely covered with tattoos, baptizing these awful men, the worst of men, in the clear water of the river. And what is the war trophy? What did the soldiers get from all that? Nothing at all. A water closet, mattresses, broken clocks, a piano, it’s all it’s there… And as usual in the army, there is always an idiot who can only play piano with two fingers. And he plays a sentimental song, which is the same song that comes at the end of the film.
It seems like they’re pillaging trash not because it has any value in and of itself, but in keeping with a tradition of pillaging independent of any actual value of the items—an arbitrary gesture.
It’s rubbish. And then of course there’s the guillotine.
Yes, you place images from the French Revolution right next to those from the Russo-Georgian War.
Several years ago, the French celebrated the bicentennial of the Revolution. The Revolution was a lake of blood flowing, just… blood. But instead of having a day of mourning for the bicentennial, they had a party. Though it might look like a paradox, they celebrate instead of crying. They beheaded Louis XVI, an innocent clockmaker. They beheaded Marie Antoinette, who didn’t understand anything about what was happening. Though what was interesting is that the Terror didn’t take place during Louis XIV’s reign… But the guillotine was obligatory for my film. It was just to give some clues about the story. You don’t know where the concierge character that Rufus plays comes from, but you understand that he’s an ex-aristocrat who now is a professional speculator, trading books for weapons or weapons for books. He’s an intellectual and an aristocrat, making business with these things. The good thing about him is he’s poor, so he’s an honest aristocrat, which is usually not the case with the aristocracy—they’re not honest, quite arrogant, snobbish, illiterate. Today most castles and noble mansions are rented out for Japanese or Chinese weddings, these big wedding events. We have found a way of amusing ourselves with all the bizarre, absurd things that have happened on this planet, and during the short time we are given to live on the planet, we never stop doing those stupid things, silly things. [Indicating the interviewer’s too-dainty sip of wine] Drink, drink! It’s no poison, you can drink safely!
And the nobleman we see being beheaded in the Terror at the beginning, with pipe in mouth, is a distant relation of some of the character who we encounter in the present day?
In my script it was written that he was Balthazar the First, followed by Balthazar the Second, the Third, the Fourth, onto the Sixth. When Balthazar the First is decapitated, a woman who is knitting next to the guillotine collects his head and tucks it into her apron. These women who would knit beside the guillotine between executions were called the knitters [les tricoteuses]. Years later, a little wicked girl who is a descendant of that woman knitting has that skull as her legacy. And just by chance, the neighbor of the main character, Balthazar, is a anthropologist who looks, checks, and analyzes the skull, and guesses whose head it was. And he reconstructs the head and the traits of his friend, who is now a concierge. I mean, cinema is something very serious, but sometimes it’s fun building these kinds of puzzles.
All of this backstory with the multiple generations, the means whereby this skull is passed through different hands and eventually comes back into this same apartment building where a distant relation is living and working… It’s implicit, maybe, but it’s not in the film, per se. You seem to have written a lot of backstory that isn’t actually incorporated into the movie, but is there for, perhaps, the performers to know.
You see, there are multiple methods to telling a story. The first one is the drama, whereby you tell the story of the character and everything—George Sand’s novel Consuelo or Dickens’s Dombey and Son, there you really narrate the story, give the whole history of the character or characters, and you tend to identify with them. In Hamlet, you don’t know the whole story of Mr. Hamlet’s character; you only know that he wants to know the truth. So he’s asking himself some general metaphysical questions, the famous monologue: “To be or not to be.” Or, for instance, in Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, you don’t know either Gargantua or Pantagruel’s characters. So there’s also another method, which consists of analyzing the phenomena that occur on the earth. An example would be Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), or Chekhov. In Chekhov, this very wicked, savage satire of society is kind of camouflaged, hidden, concealed behind the helplessness of the characters, the helplessness of people confronted with the phenomena of life. From this perspective, all of Emile Zola’s novels are satirical, but the satire is concealed within this apparent helplessness of people. Did you ever read Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers?
It’s a satire. To tell you the use of satirical things: Churchill, at the Tehran Conference, would smoke a cigar when he was sitting with Stalin and Roosevelt. So, during the Tehran Conference, Churchill was smoking a cigar, and there was a Russian colonel who walks into the hall, and he has a cigarette. And Churchill was keeping a long hunk of ash on the end of his cigar, just keeping it in place, just keeping it from falling, and here comes the Russian colonel who says, “Can you give me a light?” In this moment, Churchill was a member of the Pickwick Club. So Churchill says “No,” he keeps his ash in place, doesn’t offer the cigar, and Stalin must take a matchbox out of his pocket, light a match, and offer: “Hey Colonel, come here.” I think all of these stories of people with power are funny. Another example: at the conference in Tehran, Churchill decided to arrive late. Because when Stalin would walk in, everybody would stand up, except Roosevelt, presumably because he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t stand up. And Churchill was so full of amour-propre that he wanted to be late so that everybody would stand up including Stalin, who was already there. Churchill wrote about it in his memoir, and that this was kind of a bet. But he lost it because when he walked in, Stalin was pouring himself a drink, so he was already standing. They’re like kids. It was all a game.
It’s interesting that you mention Dickens, among others, because it seems to be that the world that your films create—certainly Chant d’hiver does—is an early 19th-century world, where you have your aristocrats in disguise, your vagabonds, and your wastrels, and nothing really in between. The middle-class… I won’t say it doesn’t exist in the film, but it doesn’t seem to be of much interest to you.
No, there actually is a middle-class, a bourgeoisie, and it’s the character of the head cop, this big guy who is constantly directing and giving orders—to kick the homeless out of their shelters, for example. He also gives orders to his daughter, who plays the violin very badly. The institution of the French clochard [urban tramp], in fact, really starts with Victor Hugo’s description of the petit clochard Gavroche.1 Gavroche is a little aristocrat. He wants nothing. He’s got his principles.
Gavroche is an instance of a very particular type of high-low character that you’re attracted to. Chaplin’s Tramp is another one, a vagabond, but with an air of the aristocrat about him. Another is Churchill, an actual aristocrat of the Dukes of Marlborough, but who had this sort of rumpled bearing of a bum about him.
The funniest of all is the Queen of England, with her hats, and their very bad taste, and worst-of-all-taste outfit. It’s quite rare that a head of state is killed, like Lincoln, killed with a pistol while watching a play. Or John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was killed because he had become unbearable. We don’t know whether he was killed by the Russians or by the mafia. He got on the nerves of the Russians and the mafia. The example of what happens to two honest people. So everything looks like a marionette show, hence the greatness of the Italian commedia dell’arte. There’s a writer I really recommend you to read, Gianni Rodari, an Italian writer who wrote a story about a guy who was not allowed to sit. As soon as he sits down, he starts growing old. So he tries to never sit down, but sometimes he’s obliged to do so: to pay honor to someone, or to caress someone who’s sick in bed. So every time he sits down, he grows a little bit older. It’s like Balzac’s novella Peau de chagrin, in which the character becomes smaller and smaller, or The Picture of Dorian Gray.
So, anyways, I’m trying not to use the drama, the first storytelling method I mentioned. I try to put together the puzzle with conflicting pieces. Of course, it’s kind of difficult for the spectator to watch films like that. Because if you want to watch such a film, you need to have some background. It’s not an everyday film consumer who may like these kind of films. Even if you only want to read Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, you’ve got to do some work with your brain, you’ve got to carry out some intellectual work. And intellectual work is not fashionable these days because it requires some kind of spiritual effort. What does it mean to be a pessimist? A pessimist is a well-informed optimist.
There is a phrase in in American English, the Rube Goldberg machine, which refers to a grand mechanism made up of innumerable moving parts. There’s an element of this to your films. The first half, roughly, is setting up and establishing all these characters with their various motives, and then the second part is just sort of letting them bounce off of one and another and watching what course they take. Once all of the balls have been set in motion, they almost take on a life of their own.
I really try to conduct a sort of propaganda campaign, saying that each person who wishes to take a pen to write, or take a paintbrush to paint, or start composing music, must know at least some of the rules of the form. So everyone should be a little bit of a mathematician. If we take music… Music is probably the closest art to mathematics. In music, you have a polyphonic composition, and then you have the counterpart. You’ll never come across a sonata by Beethoven, Prokofiev, even Shostakovich or Gershwin, that doesn’t have a structure. Structure is the most important thing. It’s the skeleton of the work. So my film is first of all written to charm the people who have the means to fund this idiocy. Then the real structuring process starts. All of my films are designed and conceived from the beginning until the end. I don’t like to do shot-reverse shots. I don’t like to film people in close-ups. Because the close-up shows human nature, and it becomes very concrete. And I don’t like working with famous actors, because that destroys the narrative. Take for example Gérard Depardieu. Imagine for a second that Depardieu plays in my film, or Catherine Deneuve…
But here you’re working with both Mathieu Amalric, who has become quite a celebrity since you first featured him in Favorites of the Moon, and Pierre Etaix…
Yes, but Pierre is not a film star. He’s a very, very good actor, and he knows his job. And the actor who plays the anthropologist, he’s a professional actor. But when you see Depardieu on the screen, you think about all the roles he played. But I really like Gregory Peck, for instance. He’s Georgian, the name was “Peckiashvli.”2 George Balanchine is also Georgian, the real name is “Balanchivadze.” I would love to have Gregory Peck in my film, but it’s impossible. I love Audrey Hepburn, but it’s impossible for her to be in my film. They would destroy my set. What’s important for the structure of the film is that the spectators don’t know the people in the film except as what they play in the film. Take my friend Michel Piccoli. I made him play a woman once, in Jardins en automne [“Gardens in Autumn”]. I showed my film to someone who knew a great deal about films, and he said “Michel Piccoli was somewhere in there, but I’m not sure where he was.” Had it not been for the journalists who wrote that Michel Piccoli was playing a woman, nobody would have guessed. So I tend to prefer that such actors use a mask. And the first mask… was the fig leaf. [Pantomimes a fig leaf over his groin]
It’s interesting that you brought up the parallel with mathematics when talking about structure because it seems to me that in this film in particular, there are a lot of elements from your previous films—Favorites of the Moon, for instance—but reordered and placed in new relationships… The figures stay the same, but the equation is different.
Yes, you are perfectly right. My friend Tarkovsky once said that you can’t do a different film every time. You keep making the same film, but with time that film changes. When you’re looking at an object from different viewpoints, the object won’t change but you may look at the object this way, that way, upwards, downwards, in detail or from afar, etcetera. But the object is the same. And whatever we do comes from very long ago, all the way from Homer, from Sophocles, Rabelais, Dante. We are like the bridge made up of everything we’ve absorbed in the past. We are the result of what has been done and absorbed all the way to us. We are here as a bridge to pass on the things that we have absorbed, with our point of view added to it. This includes Mark Twain, Flaubert, Anatole France, all that has been thought and communicated; we absorbed it and we digested it. Though I must admit that I couldn’t get beyond the halfway point of James Joyce’s Ulysses, but I know what it’s all about. It made me tired. I got tired, because I know what it’s all about. And I never read Don Quixote. But I know the story.
I’ve always heard it said that the Georgians boast of being the one people who had a continuous link to Antiquity, a direct, unbroken line to Greek and Mediterranean cultures. Hearing you talk like this, I believe it.
First of all, Georgian writing is only the 14th successful attempt at a method to put thinking down onto paper. In Georgia, we have no dictation at school, because you write exactly the way you pronounce. For each sound, you have a letter. So there’s no need to have dictations. For instance, we don’t have that crazy thing they have in French… They have four dissonant ways of writing “e.” My name for instance is spelled with one “s” only. And it would be pronounced as “Iozeliani.” So you have to write it down with two “s” for the French to read it as “Ioseliani.” Unlike other cultures, the Georgians don’t have an oral storytelling tradition, but a sung tradition, based on intertwining polyphonic singing. First voice [sings a snatch of tune], second voice [sings another section], third voice [sings another]… Again, an example of how I feel like a bridge. Without that knowledge of polyphonics, I wouldn’t be able to make my films.
1. Iosseliani refers to 1862’s Les Misérables.
2. I could find no hard evidence whatsoever to support this claim, though it seems that there is a long-standing, unsubstantiated rumor that Peck has distant Armenian roots. (George Clooney and Saddam Hussein have also been variously tagged as stealth Armenians.) Given that Tblisi’s population was largely Armenian at the beginning of the 19th century, I suppose that this is what Iosseliani is referring to.